NepalTop Stories

Nepal welcomes one million tourists, a post-Covid record

India remains the top tourist source market followed by the US and China, according to the Nepal Tourism Board.

December 28, 2023 12:39 pm

In March, Beijing allowed its citizens to travel to Nepal as tourists after more than three years. Shutterstock
In March, Beijing allowed its citizens to travel to Nepal as tourists after more than three years. Shutterstock.

By Sangam Prasain

Kathmandu: Things are looking up for Nepali tourism.

The country welcomed 1 million tourists between January and December, following China’s border reopening and record arrivals from India.

According to the Nepal Tourism Board, the country’s tourism promotional body, the arrival numbers crossed the million mark on Wednesday, the first time in four years.

This is the third instance that Nepal has received over a million tourists.

The rise in tourist arrivals has cheered the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led administration at a time when other economic indicators are poor and the country is witnessing a massive out-migration due to the lack of decent job opportunities at home.

Arrivals crossed the coveted one-million mark for the first time in 2018, with 1.17 million foreign tourists streaming into the country.

In 2019, the number rose slightly, to 1.19 million, following better flight connectivity with several Chinese cities.

Then the Covid pandemic started in early 2020, bringing arrivals to a standstill.

“It’s a moment to cheer. We have crossed a million milestone again,” said Mani Raj Lamichhane, spokesman for the Nepal Tourism Board. “Though we have recovered 85 percent, there is a lot to do.”

Nepal received 230,085 and 150,962 tourists in 2020 and 2021, respectively. In 2022, the foreign tourist numbers shot up to 614,869.

Travel restrictions and an economic slowdown triggered by the Covid pandemic delivered a massive blow to Nepal’s burgeoning tourism industry, decimating revenues and profits after 2020.

Following the recovery in arrivals, profit levels of most luxury hotels surpassed pre-pandemic figures as the end of social restrictions unleashed pent-up demand for parties and conventions, hoteliers said.

India was the top tourist source market for Nepal, with a cumulative number of arrivals at 314,000 as of December 27, followed by the United States (100,000) and China (60,000), according to the board statistics.

Nepal welcomed an all-time high number of Indian visitors.

As the Tibetan authorities denied access to nearly 50,000 Indian pilgrims who had booked the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra this year, they were forced to visit Nepal’s holy places like Muktinath and Lumbini on the same package, tour operators dealing with the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra package told the Post.

Indian visitors entering Nepal over land are not counted as tourists.

In 2019, according to the government’s statistics, the country had received 254,150 Indian travellers.

According to Lamichhane, Chinese tourist arrivals rose sharply following the opening of the borders and increased flight movement from the northern neighbour.

In March, Beijing allowed its citizens to travel to Nepal as tourists after more than three years.

Since March 15, the Chinese government allowed its national travel agencies and online travel companies to resume, on a pilot basis, outbound group tours for Chinese citizens to some countries, including Nepal.

China was Nepal’s second-largest tourism source market after India before the start of the Covid pandemic.

Arrivals from the northern neighbour were blocked after all flights linking China and Nepal were suspended.

Chinese arrivals to Nepal had crossed the 100,000 mark for the first time in 2013, largely due to the improved air links between the two countries. In 2014, Nepal received 123,805 Chinese visitors.

The back-to-back 2015 earthquake and the blockade by India led to arrivals from China dropping to a four-year low of 64,675 individuals in 2015, down 47.76 percent from 2014.

The surface road at the Tatopani border point where Nepal used to receive a large number of Chinese tourists was also blocked.

On December 25, 2015, Nepal announced visa exemption for Chinese tourists, giving them the same treatment accorded to South Asian visitors, in a bid to revive flagging arrivals. The ‘free-visa’ scheme was implemented in January 2016.

Thereon, tourist arrivals from China started rising steadily, and Nepal saw a strong 46.8 percent growth in tourist arrivals from China, to reach 153,633 visitors in 2018.

In 2019, Nepal received a record 169,543 Chinese tourists.

The number fell to 19,257 in 2020. In 2021 and 2022, there were 6,198 and 9,599 Chinese tourists in Nepal—comprising mostly diplomats and those who got stranded in third countries who came to Nepal when Beijing enforced never-ending lockdowns.

At a time of booming Chinese economy, Nepali investors started to build more and more luxury hotels.

Instead of serving a bucket in the bathroom as preferred by Indian tourists, hoteliers say, they started serving noodles.

Kishore Raj Pandey, chairman of Saathi Nepal Travel and Tours, who was the first person to bring Chinese tourists to Nepal in 2001, said he had a booking for 200 Chinese tourists in January.

“So far, it’s a good business season for us.”

He said the number of Chinese visitors may increase during their week-long holiday from February 10 to 17, next year.

However, most tour operators complain about the poor roads connecting tourist hotspots like Chitwan, Pokhara and Lumbini with Kathmandu.

“It takes six hours to reach Chitwan from Kathmandu nowadays and 12 hours to reach Pokhara,” said Pandey.

“The airfare is expensive.”

Tour operators say that the government can, at the least, provide subsidies for airlines and make airfare for foreign passengers equal to the airfare for domestic passengers until the road projects are completed.

For instance, airlines charge $85 for a 25-minute Kathmandu-Pokhara flight. For a Nepali passenger, the airfare on the same route is almost half.

Travel and tour operators say that the return of Chinese tourists to Nepal could give a big boost to Nepal’s economy. A Chinese tourist currently spends between $300 and $400 for a week-long package, excluding shopping.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have said in their reports that Nepal’s economy is expected to rebound with a strong growth in tourism.

According to Lamichhane of the Nepal Tourism Board, if Nepal’s two new international airports in Bhairahawa and Pokhara are better promoted, the arrivals figure may double to 2 million next year.

The geopolitical tussles over the two international airports may not bode well for the country’s tourism, say observers.

They said the government should act wisely to promote the airports—one, a gateway to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha and the other, an entrypoint to Annapurna, a popular destination for trekkers.

Sangam Prasain is Business Editor at The Kathmandu Post, covering tourism, agriculture, mountaineering, aviation, infrastructure and other economic affairs. He joined The Kathmandu Post in October 2009.

Related Articles

Back to top button